Ritam "Agriculture in Transition: An Auroville view"

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August 2006

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Agriculture in Transition - An Auroville View

By Bernard Declercq

Agriculture in Transition

Contrasting perceptions

Organic farming is defined as a system of practices inspired by ecological processes in nature. It is a method of learning from and working in harmonious cooperation with natural processes and natural wealth. Beyond this a deeper philosophical and spiritual dimension can be stipulated – and this is where organic farming finds itself diametrically opposed to current conventional agriculture – expressing itself in an attitude of care and respect for all life on earth or a perception that Nature is Sacred. Most of the variants of organic farming such as nature farming, natural farming, biological agriculture, permaculture, bio-intensive and bio-dynamic agriculture can, if not entirely then largely, be covered by this definition.

Conventional agriculture also referred to as chemical, intensive, or modern farming, on the other hand ends up coercing and exploiting nature in the name of maximizing food production. It is a constant struggle against the natural processes in which man has to overcome nature. Its underlying principle can best be illustrated by the word “cide” which means to kill; pesticide, insecticide, fungicide, nematodicide, germicide, vermicide, bactericide leading ultimately to … homicide?

Another feature of this system is the ‘thingification’ of the living. Plants and farm animals are ‘things’ with ‘x’ value or none. After sexing layer chickens, male chicks are roasted and fed to their little sisters. The left over parts of slaughtered cattle, unfit for human consumption, are recycled within the industry, into animal feed for other cows. This feat of cannibalism has given the world a new type of sacrifice, that of offering hundreds of thousands of cows and birds on the altar of the many armed goddess of efficiency, utility and increased profit margins.

Organic farming follows and enhances the path of evolution while chemical farming entails devolution. A number of allegations tend to stigmatize organic farming as primitive, unenlightened, an unproductive enterprise, good for the rich who can afford its produce but insufficient to feed the mass of the world’s population. These charges are typified by remarks such as, “Will organic farming feed the world?” or, “Remember that organic farming brought about huge famines in the past.”

In contrast conventional chemical agriculture bears epithets such as – scientific, superior and progressive, highly productive, the only way to feed the starving masses.

Both portrayals need a closer look.

Genesis of modern organic farming

The history of the present organic farming[1] movement starts with Albert Howard in India and Rudolf Steiner in Austria.

Howard declared that “By 1910 I had learned to grow healthy crops practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern Experimental Station”.

His method called the Indore process was basically the traditional Indian farming system which he learned from the local farmers but strengthened with a proper composting technique. The work of A. Howard was widely publicized by J. I. Rodale in the US and became known and influential world-wide. This new concept brought about spectacular improvements in agriculture and spread the world over.

Inspired by the work of Howard, Lady Eve Balfour[2], an agronomist, started her Haughley experiment in England. In her meticulously designed experiment spanning almost a decade she proved that organic farming can in all ways outperform its chemical counterpart.

In the West, after WWI, chemicals were introduced in agriculture on a wide scale. The factories that produced nitrogen for the manufacture of ammunition and bombs now turned out urea for throwing on the land. But soon after this farmers began to notice the decline in the vital force of their seed material. They requested Steiner to enlighten them on this issue and in 1924 the renowned lectures on Agriculture took place in Austria. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer studied and developed the teachings of Steiner and refined the system known as biodynamic agriculture. Pfeiffer brought biodynamic agriculture to Holland and later to America.

It was in the wake of WWII that modern chemical farming spread to all corners of the world. The industry that produced tanks and other war materials and vehicles on the conveyer belt now rolled out combine harvesters, pick-ups and tractors. No wonder that after the mechanical harvesting of beets or potatoes the fields look like Verdun after the Great War.

After Indian independence K. M. Munshi[3], the first minister of agriculture, drew up a plan for renewing Indian agriculture. He was well aware that India should develop agriculture on its own inherent strength and tradition and not imitate the exploitative Western trend. Plan Munshi was rooted in the philosophy of self reliance and strengthening the ecological base of agriculture, as expressed by Gandhiji, J. C. Kumarappa, Meerabehen and Payarelal. The plan to rebuild and regenerate the ecological base of agricultural productivity was worked out in detail. It was founded on a bottom up decentralized and participatory methodology. Repairing nature’s cycles and working in partnership with the natural processes was viewed as being central to the indigenous agricultural policy. Independent India however tragically abandoned this ecologically sound option, submitting instead to pressures from US institutions promoting the capital intensive, industrial model for a ‘modern’ Indian agriculture. The drought of 1966 and the heavy import of food grain were used to firmly establish new policies which continue to dominate the agricultural scene even today.

Voices of dissent never remain stifled for too long and there has been a healthy resurgence in recent decades.

Winds of welcome change – India/Asia

In 1984 the first all-India organic farmers conference was organized in Sevagram, Wardha[4]. For the first time the severe shortcomings of modern farming were thrown open for public debate. Startling facts about falling yields, declining soil fertility, tremendous losses of indigenous genetic resources, poured in from all sides. The restoration of forest cover, as a buffer for a sustainable agriculture, was given great importance. This event marked a revival of pride and confidence in India’s hidden potential as revealed by outstanding individuals such as Dharampal the distinguished historian, Banwarilal Choudury the Gandhian and untiring village worker, Dhabolkar the eccentric agri-mathematician, young avant-garde Vandana Shiva, Korah Mathen and Claude Alvares and many others.

Since then organic farming has grown steadily and is thriving in many states as well as at the national level. The Organic Farmers Association of India – OFAI – has taken the work of ARISE[5] a step further and is presently coordinating efforts of Indian farmers to remould Indian agriculture.

In Tamil Nadu the organic farming movement has taken remarkable shape in recent years. With more than 20,000 farmers shifting to organic practices in the last 3 years, this movement owes its success largely to the work of pioneering farmers and dedicated individuals rather than institutions. There are thriving networks within networks. A vibrant internal dynamism is obvious and large numbers of innovative farmers are now enthusiastic trainers. Their cowshed classrooms burst at the seams with farmers seeking change. Many farms deserve to be recognized as centres of excellent research. Publications, magazines and books on organic farming are flourishing. The leaders are constantly on the move, addressing farmers’ gatherings attended by the hundreds in villages all over the state. Although the focus is on developing and promoting organic farming techniques, the change being encouraged is wide-ranging. The movement also addresses the need to revive Siddha traditions of medicine, the need to inspire youngsters to return to the land, the need to conserve natural resources and above all the need to love nature and serve her.[6]

Everywhere in India the organic farming movement is growing strong, with mounting numbers opting for ecological alternatives. The Organic Farming Sourcebook[7] will soon run into many volumes.

The resurgence is not limited to India alone. Worldwide, farmers movements filled with the spirit of their indigenous heritage have brought about unique and amazing innovation in farming. They have brought productivity on par without the destructive consequence characteristic of chemical agriculture. In many cases crop yields are now rising, doubling and even trebling, the ceiling of conventional farming.

MASIPAG in the Philippines created sophisticated organic practices based on indigenous genetic resources in rice cultivation that shadows the high input conventional system. Voly Vary Maroanaka or System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a rice cultivation method developed by a priest in Madagascar, revolutionized rice cultivation to the extent that all modern rice research and breeding appears as a child’s prank in comparison. In South America the Waru Waru are being reclaimed and the original Indian communities are finding back their lost greatness. Everywhere in the Western world, South America or Africa, organic farming is rising and becoming a force that can bring about the needed change in agriculture and hopefully in society at large.

The pathogen within organic farming

As organic farming makes rapid advances and offers bold technological alternatives, a familiar danger lurks menacingly round the corner – its abduction by big business interests. With the rising popularity of organic products, the tropics are increasingly eyed as cheap sources of organic foods for Western countries. The tropics are being invaded by the certification drive. As this is a costly enterprise, small farmers are immediately excluded. Large business concerns have entered the field attracted by bumper profits. Clever entrepreneurs are buying up agricultural land from poor farmers and besides making motorbikes or soap are now joining the organic bandwagon on a grand scale, raking in nice profits. The link between forests and farms has been driven to the background if not totally eclipsed. Trade across nations and even continents is as old as civilization itself but the extent and content were most likely very different then. While it is true that people in the cities have the right to safe food, and even if export of surplus foodstuffs can earn farmers a better income, certain questions still remain.

Is it socially sound to feed the rich in the West with organic food from poorer countries? How environmentally sound is it to transport food over large distances?

The British colonial administration considered the availability of 200 kg of food grains per person per year as the absolute minimum. Below that is famine. Food grain for human consumption as late as 1990 was 180 kg per person. The per capita food grain availability in India in 2000 was 201 kg. Evidently this has not changed in the last three centuries and is the lowest in the world today! In this context can export of food be considered as fair trade?

In conclusion

Que sera? The future cannot rely on the conventional chemical farming system to provide food for the country or the world, to do so would be suicidal, an end to evolution. The road to farming practices of the past is closed. Its know-how and resource base are lost. And now the commercialization of organic farming poses if not a threat then at least grave concern. Once projected as a viable alternative to ecologically damaging and exploiting ways of conventional agriculture, organic farming in its exploitative commercial form is now compounding the problem of food security in India.

In this period of transition, there seems to be a lack of vision as to which road to take for the immediate development of agriculture. Any randomly selected treatise on agriculture contains lamentations about the past, eulogies about modern farming and the promise of GMO’s as the final solution. In the same breath, the importance of indigenous agriculture, farmers wisdom and eco-sensitive practices are emphasised – a confused khichdi of incongruous ingredients.

While ideal solutions are evasive, until we remain within a limited consciousness, it is useful to constantly remind ourselves of the principles pointing in the right direction.

  • Bring the food economy as close to home as possible.
  • Develop and use simple farming technologies following Nature as a teacher.
  • Maintain and enhance soil fertility within the economic catchment.
  • Conserve and optimise use of rainwater.
  • Reduce fossil fuel dependence as much as possible.
  • Protect and conserve local biodiversity – forest species, cultivated plants, macro and micro fauna.

An Auroville experience

In the mid 1990s after moving from Annapurna, Deepika joined me in looking after the northern corner of Aurobrindavan. We worked part time, protecting the place, planting, making a good fence. After withdrawing from training activities and our work for ARISE in 1998, we took in an adjoining piece of Auroville land and decided to concentrate on land regeneration work.

This is a small nook in a large tract of about 8000 ha of gullies that stretch over Aurobrindavan and beyond towards Usteri. Overexploited by pebble and soil mining, repeated cutting and grazing of vegetation, the land has become a harsh expanse of pebbles and laterite chunks embedded in poor clays.

The broader convictions that form the background to our experiment are that:

  • Wastelands and marginal lands (50 million ha in India) have a productive potential that can certainly be restored, into productive forests as well as farms.
  • This can be done – with simple techniques based on natural principles, minimum financial investments, resources from home and the immediate neighbourhood – in a way that is gentle on the environment and people.
  • Food security at the home/community level, the oldest form of agriculture, is the only answer to insecurities created by global trade in essentials.

We are trying to translate these convictions into small-scale activities on the land:

  • Establishing live fences
  • Conserving local forest species
  • Creating small water bodies
  • Planting mixed timber, bamboo and ‘useful’ species
  • Setting up a home garden
  • Starting a small orchard

Building soil and feeding the plant

The central challenge in every area of our work has been to restore soil fertility, especially for garden crops. While many would not even try, we would like our experiment to confront certain questions. Is it possible to grow food and other garden crops on such devastated land? Can this be done with an absolute minimum of external inputs? Without bringing good soil and manure from somewhere and degenerating one place to regenerate another? By buying compost from the villagers are we not compelling them to purchase fertilizers for their own field?

The theoretical basis of our work is drawn from the principle of optimum sunlight harvesting which governs healthy plant growth in all natural ecosystems. This natural principle has been developed into efficient systems of farming by researchers such as Claude Bourguignon and by the Prayog Parivar of S. S. Dabholkar. We are using both to develop a method suited for our specific conditions and needs.

Plants feed themselves for 95% on the atmosphere and from sunlight, while soil contributes only 5% of the diet of plants. This might make it sound as if the soil is of little importance. But the fact that the total biomass volume of roots is greater than that of the leaves indicates how crucial the soil component is. Plants can favourably harvest sunlight and express their maximum potential only when soil conditions are ideal. The ease with which roots can penetrate the soil and have access to a complete diet of minerals will determine the extent of optimal absorption of atmospheric elements. The crux is to obtain an optimal and clean leaf and canopy area by providing the best conditions for feeding roots along the drip line of the canopy. The Prayog Parivar prescribes a method of soil building which imitates the manner in which soil is formed and maintained in a forest. If we look at the forest floor we see layers of leaves and twigs, pats of dung, bird droppings, rain, termites, ants, earthworms, burrowing animals and leaves again – year after year. For the garden we try to do something similar, using very thin alternate layers of leaves/biomass and soil to create beds and heaps. The process is further refined and enriched in numerous creative ways using neighborhood and home resources, recycling crop residues, kitchen waste etc.

With this method it is possible to obtain the best possible leaf and canopy area required for optimum harvest of sunlight and production.

Adapting to our specific conditions we grow and use Acacia coleii (holosericea) and Dodonea viscosa as pioneers and recycle every bit of them for building soil for the garden area. With these hardy pioneers we have managed to grow our major biomass requirement on the site.

Together with leaves gathered manually from the neighbourhood, and soil collected from deepening ponds, within a short time we were able to build up soil for the garden. We now have about 400 sqm of built-up ‘forest’ soil where we grow, every season, vegetables, herbs, flowers and conserve nearly 80 hardy plant varieties for home gardening. For fruit trees we are following similar techniques for canopy development. A whole line of bamboos, now 7-8 m tall were planted in heaps built in the Prayog Parivar way, above the ground. This method of soil building has been tried out in other locations in Auroville as well. In Maharashtra where Prayog Parivar originated, there are productive organic farms obtaining stunning yields, in grapes, sugarcane, vegetables and other crops.

Behind the garden is a forest area requiring much less ‘management’. Here the work besides some protection and some interplanting is left mainly to nature. For the earth is not for man alone.

Commercial food crops have been developed with priorities such as short stature for ease of harvest, short duration, convenient transport, etc. but rarely for food value, taste, nourishment – qualities that consumers need. Plant varieties suitable for home gardens are disappearing together with the skills and resources needed to grow them.

The home base of farming has suffered badly with the industrialization of agriculture. We desperately need to bring farming back home.

Mother visualized “A small house and a garden for everyone”.[8]


  1. The word organic, derived from organism, was introduced by Lord Northbourne in 1940. In his view a farm is like a living organism whose interrelated parts form a living whole.
    It is interesting to note that Sri Aurobindo, in his ‘Back to the Land’ of 1908 emphasized the need for the growing middle class to return to the village to revive agriculture.
  2. Lady Eve Balfour was the niece of Lord Balfour, the Conservative British Prime Minister. At the age of twelve she decided to become a farmer. She was the first woman to take a degree in agriculture in England. At 21 she used her inheritance to purchase a farm. She became an expert in plowing with a horse team and looked after the animals herself.
  3. K.M. Munshi was a student of Sri Aurobindo in Baroda and was profoundly influenced by him. Sri Aurobindo went out of his way and received Munshi in his room in 1950.
  4. Jaap and I were delegated to represent the Auroville Food Coop. We met people who surpassed us immensely. In subsequent meetings it was an honour to meet Dr. Richarria who related the whole Indian experience of rice cultivation and Marjorie Sykes who fundamentally questioned modernism.
  5. 5 ARISE, Agricultural Renewal in India for a Sustainable Environment was born in Auroville during an all-India organic farmers’ convention in 1995.
  6. The role of Auroville in shaping the movement in its initial stages is acknowledged by its leaders.
  7. Published by The Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa.
  8. From “The Aims of Auroville – Following Mother’s Guidelines”, House of Mother’s Agenda, 1999.


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  • Gandhi, Maneka (1994) Heads and Tails, The Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa.
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  • Indian Council of Agricultural Research - ICAR (1997). Handbook of Agriculture, ICAR, New Delhi.
  • Jeavons, John (1998) Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming: Growing a Better Sense of Humus, Seed Savers Harvest Edition, Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa.
  • Jeavons, John (1979) How to Grow More Vegetables, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.
  • Kate, Tarak (1996) Indigenous Knowledge and Future Prospects of Organic Farming in Natural Resource Management, ed. Khurana et al.
  • Moxham, Roy (2001) The Great Hedge of India, Harper Collins, New Delhi.
  • Peavy, Willian S. and Warren Peary (1992) Super Nutrition Gardening, Avery Publishing Group Inc., Garden City Park, New York.
  • Pretty, Jules N. (1996) Regenerating Agriculture, Vikas, New Delhi.
  • Robinson, Raoul A. (1996) Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops to Reduce Pesticide Dependence, AgAccess, Davis, California.
  • Sheldrake, Rupert (1988) The New Science of Life, Paladin, London.
  • Shiva, Vandana (1991) The Violence of the Green Revolution, Third World Network, Penang.
  • Shiva, Vandana (1996) Globalisation of Agriculture and the Growth of Food Insecurity, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, RFSTNRP, Delhi.
  • Weaver, Don (2003) To Love and Regenerate the Earth: Further Perspectives on The Survival of Civilization, http://soilandhealth.org/book/to-love-and-regenerate-the-earth-further-perspectives-on-the-survival-of-civilization/

See also